8 January 2016

Don’t believe the reviews, As You Like It is a masterpiece


When it comes to theatre reviews, who criticises the critics?

It is a question I remember asking many times during my university years, where the ranks of student theatre critics were filled mainly by frustrated wannabe-actors. One particularly vicious critic was notorious for auditioning for everything, failing to be cast, and then turning up as a reviewer to unequivocally pan the shows he’d been rejected by.

Everything is far more mature in the world of professional theatre. Theatre critics are, for the most part, impartial and considered individuals, who have experienced enough productions to make a fair assessment of a show’s merits. And with the price of theatre tickets having tripled in the last ten years, they play an increasingly important role. If I’m going to spend upwards of £50 for a ticket at the National Theatre to see Polly Findlay’s revival of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I want to know it will be worth it.

The reviews, particularly the one by the Daily Telegraph’s highly respected critic Dominic Cavendish, told me it wouldn’t be. According to Cavendish, the play was “dislike at first glance”. This version of Orlando and Rosalind’s ethereal romance, considered one of the greatest comedies ever written, is (Cavendish tells us) overdone and conceited: “Like someone dressing to impress with garish abandon on a date-night bound to go wrong, the production hits overkill mode even before a word has been uttered.”

Damning words, and enough to dissuade me, had I not already bought my ticket. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was presented with two and a half hours of pure brilliance. The performances are dazzling, not just of the effervescent and whip-smart heroine played by Rosalie Craig, but also the full supporting cast of shepherds, lovers, and itinerant lords. A special shout-out should go to Paul Chahidi’s melancholy Jacques, Alan Williams’s philosophical shepherd, and Siobhán McSweeney’s charmingly sincere Audrey.

But the true star of this production is the phenomenal set, designed by Lizzie Clachan. The transition from the French court of the first act to the mystical Forest of Arden is achieved through a breath-taking set-change where office desks and chairs are suspended in eerie columns to form an abstract backdrop of overhanging trees. It is without a doubt one of the most impressive set-changes I have ever seen.

What does Cavendish have to say about such a magnificent spectacle? “Imagine an IKEA warehouse being blown sky-high then freeze-framed.”

Other highlights include a pastoral scene in which the wool-clad ensemble play sheep. While this may sound dubious, the result was so well-executed as to induce not just audible laughter from the audience, but two rounds of spontaneous applause. The visual ingenuity is utterly lost on Cavendish, who surmises: “the cast pad about on all-fours in woolly jumpers, imitating sheep. Baah-humbug!”

Critics are entitled to their own opinions, and it would be a dull world if we all agreed. But instances like this should remind any theatre viewer that the word of the critic is not infallible. Where Cavendish saw overblown self-indulgence, I saw a fresh and inventive re-imagining of a cherished classic.

In short, if you live your life by the star ratings at the top of reviews, you might find yourself missing out on pure genius.

As You Like It is on at the National Theatre until 5 March.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.